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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Home Alone -- December 1, 2012

Since Wednesday I have been living without a cellmate. Bobby was taken to the prison Health Care Unit and then to an outside hospital after experiencing chest pains. It is wonderful not to share small quarters with anyone and I feel like I have been liberated from a Siamese twin who I had nothing in common with. I despise continually socially interacting with people and it is very taxing on me. It is a relief to have some privacy and solitude which is very rare at a maximum security prison. Yesterday was my birthday, and if it did not remind me of the vast amount of time I have spent incarcerated or how old I was, I may have actually considered the single-man cell a birthday gift. The time alone is a blessing but I know all good things cannot last. My cellmate will return, or I will be assigned a new one. The next convict I am forced to live with more than likely will be worse. Regardless, I will continue to serve my protracted death sentence, growing older and more despondent.

On Monday evening the prison was placed on lockdown. Prisoners returning from the Health Care Unit who take insulin informed me a guard and an inmate in cell house Bravo got into a fight when chow lines were being run. Apparently, a guard was being disrespectful and "talking shit". When the prisoner was let out of his cell for chow and was on his way out of the building he saw the guard. Without warning, he blasted the guard in the eye and continued to beat him. The inmate was quickly taken down by other staff, handcuffed, and taken away. The guard was seen at the H.C.U., bleeding heavily with a gash to the side of his eye socket. He was stitched up and given what inmates said was a ridiculously large eye patch. They speculated the big white man with spider web tattoos and an attitude was trying to exaggerate his injury so he will be compensated lavishly.

During the lockdown, my cellie continued to complain of chest pains. A black female medical technician spoke with him one evening and told him if he was not sweating there was nothing wrong with his heart. She refused to authorize him to be sent to the H.C.U. and said there was nothing that could be done. The guards, particularly one man, seemed sympathetic but they could not send him without the med tech saying it was a medical emergency. On a lockdown, there is no movement or it is restricted movement. Wednesday, the cell house was placed on a level 4 lockdown and hospital passes, visits, and phone calls were being allowed. When my cellmate complained to a guard, he let him go to the H.C.U. with other inmates going there in the morning. Guards may sometimes exaggerate their injuries, but inmates do also. The med tech may have thought Bobby was faking to get attention. I knew he was not faking, although I could not tell if he was exaggerating his pain or condition. Inmates regularly must exaggerate medical problems or they would not receive any treatment.

Around noon, I left the cell house to go on a visit. The guard who let me out of my cell told me not to expect my cellmate to return. I was not sure what he meant by this and I asked him if he died. He said no but he had a heart attack and was sent to an outside hospital. On my way to the visiting room, I thought about how all this time Bobby was not exaggerating his medical problems. A number of times, I had thought he was acting like Fred Sanford in the 70's comedy "Sanford and Son". I wondered how severe my cellmate's condition was and if he would be at the hospital long.

It was odd not having a cellmate. Unless a prisoner is at Tamms Supermax, the cells are nearly always doubled up. In many minimum security penitentiaries, inmates live in crowded dorms where bunks are so close together there is barely room to walk between them. Because of draconian sentencing legislation and the decrease in space in the IDOC, some dorms are placed in moldy basements or gymnasiums. At minimum security prisons, however, inmates are not confined to their sleeping quarters and have much more freedom and movement. Almost everyone has work details and there are various programs as well as recreational periods. There is also never any lockdowns, unlike maximum security prisons where men can be on lockdown more often than not. In penitentiaries like Stateville, Menard, and Pontiac, inmates are double bunked and spend the vast preponderance of their time in cells which are typically 5 by 10 feet. I am told some medium security prisons are keeping men in their cells almost all day as well.

During the past few days, guards when conducting count will regularly stop abruptly at my cell to inquire where my cellmate is. They are used to seeing two men in each cell and it is unusual for a prisoner to be alone. One guard asked me, "One time?" which seemed like a stupid question. Did the guard think my cellmate was hiding in his box or under the bunk? The cells are small rectangular areas and unless a man has a sheet up while using the toilet, it is obvious there is only one person in the cubicle. Some people ask redundant questions or do not word their question correctly. Possibly his question was rhetorical or he meant to say, "Where is your cellmate?" Regardless, I answered, "What you see is what you get." Guards who work in the unit regularly have become accustomed to seeing me alone and know my cellmate is at the hospital now, and therefore are no longer are puzzled why I am alone.

The majority of prisoners like the company of a cellmate. It gives them more opportunity to be social, play games, or share other activities. Personally, I prefer to be alone and would not mind being in solitary confinement. I am a nonsocial introverted person and furthermore do not like most of the convicts. I also have little to nothing in common with those around me. I rarely spoke to Bobby or the 3 cellmates preceding him. The last cellmate I conversed with or interacted with at any length was about 2 years ago when I was in the Roundhouse.

Although I am in an oppressive maximum security prison, the past few days I have felt liberated. Almost everything an inmate does in the cell must be done in coordination with their cellmate. Only one person can be bathing, washing clothes, exercising, changing sheets on their bunk, or various other activities. Even using the toilet often requires interaction between cellmates. Most people will want to be at the cell bars when their cellmate is defecating. When I urinate I also sometimes have to look up to my right to see if my cellmate is overhead on his bunk. I cannot even open up my property box all the way without blocking my cellmate's path. I try not to be on the floor when my cellmate is unless he is sitting at the bars preoccupied. So many things affect your cellmate who is always within feet from you in the cell. With my cellmate gone, I was free to do what I wanted, when I wanted.

It has been incredible how much life is easier and how productive I can be without being trapped in a small cage with someone else. Quickly, I was able to establish an efficient routine leaving me with time to complete numerous tasks. Even when the penitentiary came off lockdown (other than B House), I was amazed by how much I could do when not restricted by a cellmate. Since Bobby has been gone, I have been able to read 7 newspapers, several corporate reports, and 3 magazines. I have reordered by property boxes, made a new device to boil water, improved the drag on my cassette player, sewn the holes in a few pairs of socks, sharpened my collection of pencil stubs with nail clippers, wrote several letters, and much more.

Having a single man cell has not only allowed me to accomplish many more tasks but improved my energy and ability to deal with the mobs of people in the penitentiary. Continuous social interaction is an enormous strain on me. When I have a cellmate, I am trapped and cannot get away except to other more disturbing places. Even though I rarely spoke with Bobby, I still had to interact with him. Everything he did affected my focus, activities, and peace of mind. Cellmates can leave me very lethargic and ever more nonsocial. Possibly, it is because I have autism that I need down time. For a while, I have been taking midday naps to recover, but I found being alone in the cell that I no longer needed them. The crowds and regular screaming of prisoners is also more tolerable. I overheard an inmate this week say he spent 5 years in Tamms and it was horrible. However, the idea of isolation seems terrific to me and I wish I could maintain this single man cell indefinitely.

On Thursday, I went out to the prison yard and for the first time in probably years did not use the time to work out. I had already completed my exercise regimen early in the morning and I left the confines of my cage to enjoy the remaining part of autumn. I also spent part of the time talking with a few men. Mainly I spoke with Anthony and Steve while walking around the yard. For a little while I spoke with a short bald white prisoner who goes by the name "Little Man." Despite being small, Little Man has a mean appearance and from what I am told was very violent before he lost his health and became old. He approached me and asked, "What's up with that website of yours?" Apparently, prisoners are still talking about the posts which were passed around the cell house. I asked him what he meant, and he went on to say a lot of men do not like it. He also asked me why I wrote. I told him that I used to write political editorials when publications accepted mail-in freelance journalism. I thought now I would write about the criminal justice system and life in prison through my own blog. He said, "You don't write anything bad about the white man, do you?" "No," I replied. "You don't write anything bad about Little Man, do you?" he asked. "Not so far," I said. This was all he cared about and he walked away.

A couple of black inmates asked me about Bobby. They wanted to know what happened and if I knew anything since he has been gone. All I could tell them at the time was he was complaining of chest pain and was sent to an outside hospital. Later, the Polish nurse I sometimes speak with came by doing medication rounds in the evening. I asked her if she knew what happened to my cellmate. She was not sure who he was, so I had to describe what he looked like as well as give his full name. After some thought, she said he had a heart attack and was sent to St. Joe's Hospital. She did not have any other information but today someone told me they saw him being wheeled out of the Health Care Unit on a gurney and he was disoriented.

Yesterday morning, I wrote a note to the cell house sergeant and asked if he would call the placement officer on my behalf. If my cellmate had a heart attack, I thought he may be in the hospital and then the H.C.U. for a long time. He may even die and quickly his bunk would be filled randomly. I was concerned who may be assigned to my cell in Bobby's place, and I know a man who was at the point of exchanging blows with his cellmate. John seemed like he would make a decent cellmate for me, however, and I threw the note down to a cell house worker on the lower floor to give to the sergeant and was surprised he quickly returned with a message. He yelled up to the 2nd floor that the bunk was on medical hold. When I came out for chow the sergeant was standing by the door and I stepped out of line to speak to him. I asked him when he would know the hold is lifted, and how long do they usually last. He said he will know when they put another person in my cell, which was disappointing to hear. He continued, however, saying medical holds could sometimes extend 3 months. On the way out of the cell house, the sergeant told me to enjoy my time alone.

Being in a single man cell on my birthday was one of the best birthday presents I could receive. As the sergeant suggested, I attempted to enjoy my peace and solitude. I exercised to heavy metal music which I had not done in a long time. Since my cellmate did not listen to the same music, I had packed my radio in my box. I read a National Geographic and a hunting magazine casually with my feet up on my property box and pillows propping my back up against the wall. I read about the great outdoors without any of the distractions my cellmate usually will bring. In the evening, I watched Stanford defeat UCLA in the college divisional championship who will go on to play either Wisconsin or Nebraska in the Rose Bowl. As I watched the game, I ate my cellmate's breakfast of pancakes and bran flakes. The cell house workers have continued to leave two breakfast trays in the cell bars at night despite his absence. Throughout the day I felt comfortable and relatively free. I was reminded of the film "Home Alone" where a little kid was left behind during the holidays by his family. Instead of being terrified or miserable, the actor Macauley Culkin was jubilant to be free from his parents and siblings and left to his own devices.

Anthony stopped by my cell before he went to work in the kitchen. He was surprised I was still awake because I am usually asleep by 10 p.m. He asked me if I was partying through the night and I told him, yes, it is one big party. Can't he tell? He asked me where the booze and women were whereupon I replied, "They will not arrive until later." I went on to describe some absurdly wild birthday party to the entertainment of my visitor. Anthony was skeptical and said I did not seem like the partying type. I was not, and I always hated crowds, loud dance music, sleazy women and drugs. I did not even drink. The way I spoke in a flat somber tone probably also conflicted with my jubilent party fantasy. Celebrating my 20th birthday in prison in any fashion was absurd. I was 38 years old and slowly dying. Before Anthony stopped by I was actually looking in my little plastic mirror grimly brooding about how much I had aged. A few family members sent me birthday cards apparently to cheer me up, but I wish they had not. They were more like death cards from a Tarot deck.

After Anthony left, I listened to some ballads off the Pink Floyd album "The Wall." There is a song called "Hey You" which I readily identify with and sent to one of the girls I once wrote. I sent it as a part of a collage of goodbye songs burned onto a CD for her to remember me by. The song talks about a girl "out there beyond the wall" and tells her he is coming home to her. However, toward the end the lyrics say "but it was all just a fantasy. The wall was too high as you can see. No matter how he tried he could not break free and the worms ate into his brain." It was pleasant to have a cell to myself but ultimately I could not enjoy it. I am a prisoner until death, with or without a cellmate.

7 comments:

  1. I understand why a cellmate would be so troublesome. Some people are more sensitive to lack of privacy and sensory stimulation than others. It would drive me insane. Have you tried meditation/mindfulness techniques? It could help...maybe.

    I also laughed at the comparison of birthday cards to death cards from a Tarot deck. I'm sure they didn't mean it that way, but rather wanted to let you know that you're not forgotten, which isn't a bad sentiment?

    kathleen

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  2. Great post as usual Paul. You are a great writer.

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  3. None of my shit ever gets posted...its because I don't like mertz and I don't think he is anything like you. There. Is this okay screeners??? I said a lot more before but it never made it through.

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    1. You might have an axe to grind with Mertz, but this is Paul's blog. I'm not a screener. The fact that Paul gets along with a convicted murderer like Mertz while incarcerated is a necessity of his environment. I hope Mertz can find a way to make his life meaningful In a positive way. His life has a purpose and hopefully he will be there to shake Paul's hand the day Paul walks out of prison.

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  4. I did time at Vandalia and Dixon Paul, you are incorrect on a few things here.

    "At minimum security prisons almost everyone has a job assignment"

    Untrue..Jobs are nearly as scarce as they are in maximum security prisons. most minimums have 1500-2000 inmates how many jobs do you think there are?

    "At minimum security prisons there are never any lockdowns"

    Untrue..inmate fights routinely cause entire housing units to be locked down, severe weather,Holidays,staff shortages cause frequent lockdowns as well just as in Stateville.

    "Inmates have much more freedom and movement"

    untrue..All movement is escorted and line movement is monitored by ridiculously large groups of C.O.s and LT's Minimum security inmates need a call pass to leave the housing unit just like in Stateville.

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    1. When jobs are not available prisoners have much more access to school programs or recreation at medium and minimum security penitentiaries. They also almost never go on lockdown. IDOC has a website which lists the prisons currently on lockdown and my visitors have never seen a level 4 and a level 3 but a few times over the course of years. As for movement, line is different from small groups or individuals. Unlike at Stateville, prisoners can walk without an escort.

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  5. "Anthony was skeptical and said I did not seem like the partying type. I was not, and I always hated crowds, loud dance music, sleazy women and drugs. I did not even drink."

    What did you do for fun when you were a youngster, then? Watch television and read novels?

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